UDL framework for learning
Online Learning

Applying Universal Design for Learning Principles

When creating course materials, it is important to be as inclusive as possible. A common way of working to ensure that materials respond to different approaches to learning is to use Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which proposes inclusive course design. It is a framework that helps to make content, activities and assignments, and instruction accessible to students at different levels, with different abilities, and who take different approaches to learning. While this sounds straightforward and relatively simple, when one dives into the UDL literature and works to implement its guidelines, the task quickly starts to feel overwhelming—at least that’s how it made me feel.

Last year, I attended a year-long faculty working group in which we focused on implementing UDL in our courses. Here’s what made this a daunting task. A course that is truly adhering to UDL guidelines makes every aspect of the course as inclusive as possible, including the syllabus, lectures, and any online components such as videos, PowerPoints, etc. It can mean creating closed captioning for videos and ensuring that all documents are created and saved in a manner that is screen reader ready.

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Online learning
Online Learning

Empowering Learners through Online Discussion Self-Grading

Have you ever thought, “There has to be a better way!” while grading your online learners’ discussions? It is no secret that grading student discussions is time consuming, laborious, and tedious, considering the disproportionate amount of time required to give solid, quality feedback on a large volume of discussion. On the learner side, students often do not use the rubric to craft their discussions or read and use feedback to improve. This adds to the frustration and can make grading learners’ discussions feel like a waste of time. Fortunately, a better way exists: engage and empower your students by having them grade their own discussions!

Benefits
Discussion self-grading is an innovative, unconventional, and creative learning method. It empowers learners to improve by employing adult learning principles outlined in the theory of andragogy and reflective learning. These principles encourage learners to be self-directed and responsible for their own learning (Knowles, Holston, & Swanson, 2015), and that serves to motivate the learner. Learners engage in their own learning process with internal motivation and are allowed to maintain control.

Discussion self-grading also requires reflection on experiences, beliefs, knowledge, one’s self, and practices with the goal of improving (Kember, McKay, Sinclair, & Wong, 2008). Reflection is an important lifelong skill for life, career, learning, and problem solving. It helps people improve both performance and practice in all facets of life. In the case of discussion self-grading, as learners engage in grading their own discussions, they reflect upon their discussion performance. Learners discover their mistakes and accomplishments, learn what they can improve and how, and are motivated to do better in the future.

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Reflections

What Do Students Do When They Study?

An article in a recent issue of the International Journal of STEM Education has got me thinking about study habits and how little we know about how students study.

The article is open-access, and I encourage you to read it whether you teach in the STEM fields or not. But first, a synopsis: The research team used “a practice-based approach to focus on the actual study behaviors of 61 undergraduates at three research universities in the United States and Canada who were enrolled in biology, physics, earth science and mechanical engineering courses.” (p. 2) In small focus groups students responded to this prompt: “Please imagine for a moment how you typically study for this course—can you describe in as much detail as possible your study situation?” (p. 4) What these students reported is a good reason to read this article.

Another reason this research merits attention is the concern the researchers have with how we think about and research study behaviors. We tend to focus on parts of the study process—when students study, how long they study, what strategies they use when they study, and what strategies they should use. Hora and Oleson believe that studying is a collection of behaviors and thinking about them in isolation reduces the complex ways they interact. Their results support that belief. “Results indicate that studying is a multi-faceted process that is initiated by instructor or self-generated cues, followed by marshaling resources and managing distractions, and then implementing study behaviors that include selecting a social setting and specific strategies.” (p. 1)

As for the cohort consisting of students reporting on how they studied in STEM courses, the researchers note, “We are not suggesting that this account of studying is generalizable to all students but is a heuristic device for thinking about studying in a more multi-dimensional manner than is common at the present time.” (p. 15) So, what your students would say about how they study may well be different, but that’s another reason this is such a good article. As you make your way through it, you are constantly considering what you do and don’t know about how your students study.

Hora, M. T. and Oleson, A. K. (2017). Examining study habits in undergraduate STEM courses from a situative perspective. International Journal of STEM Education, 4 (1), 19 pages.

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Classroom Climate

10 Effective Ways to Connect with College Students in Large Classes

Research indicates that students learn more and rate their class experience higher when they have a personal connection with the instructor. Here are ten practical ways to help that happen:

  1. Arrive early and stay after class. Shake some hands and welcome students as they enter. Wander to the back of the class and say hello. Ask how their day is going. Make small talk. Proactively get out from behind the protective podium! Say goodbye as students leave. Stay after class for 10 minutes. Tell the students you will be happy to answer questions, etc. We are all busy, but we can usually give 10 minutes after class.
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creating a climate for learning
Classroom Climate

Reflections on Teacher Power in the Contemporary Classroom

Teacher power has to do with the ability to influence student behaviors and, ultimately, what they learn and how much. My colleagues and I often lament that it is more difficult to influence student behaviors than it used to be. Much of what we know about power in the classroom is grounded in some rather outdated, but at the time useful, assumptions. In traditional classrooms, students used to submit to teacher authority with little resistance. Back then teachers influenced students to do things they would not have otherwise done by:

  • Promising rewards or punishments
  • Suggesting “I’m an expert, and this is what works for me, so you should try it too”
  • Asserting the authority inherent in their title, “teacher”
  • Developing good relationships with students as a way of encouraging them to comply
  • Managing their classrooms with policies and structures that force students to be on-task (like banning the use of laptops or tablets, side talking, absenteeism, or tardiness)

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online learning
Online Learning

What Do Students Really Want from Online Instructors?

Over the past nine years, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing approximately 200 instructors at my institution develop and teach their first online course. I’ve witnessed instructors excited by the opportunity, but I’ve also observed many who were hesitant or even fearful of teaching online.

The instructors who were hesitant or fearful often would ask: “So, what’s the secret to being a great online instructor?” I had the sense they were expecting an extensive or complex answer. Many times they were surprised by my response.

Much has been written about student satisfaction in online courses, and there certainly are a number of factors that can influence a student’s experience as an online learner—institution, discipline, level of course, peers, home life, instructor, and so on. The ideas in this article have come from three sources: my 11 years of online teaching experience, hundreds of discussions with instructors about what has and hasn’t worked in their online courses, and the research literature.

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active learning in the classroom
Teaching Strategies and Techniques

Active Learning: A Perspective from Cognitive Psychology

In recent years, the phrase active learning has become commonplace across the academic disciplines of higher education. Indeed, most faculty members are familiar with definitions that go something like this: Active learning involves tasks that require students not only to do something, but also to think about what they have done. Moreover, many faculty have already incorporated into their teaching activities associated with active learning, such as interactive lectures, collaborative learning groups, and discussion-related writing tasks.

However, faculty may not be aware that, from the perspective of cognitive psychology, the meaning of active learning is slightly different. According to cognitive psychology, active learning involves the development of cognition, which is achieved by acquiring "organized knowledge structures" and "strategies for remembering, understanding, and solving problems." (This particular definition is from a cognitive psychology text edited by Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, School.) Additionally, active learning entails a process of interpretation, whereby new knowledge is related to prior knowledge and stored in a manner that emphasizes the elaborated meaning of these relationships.

Faculty interested in promoting this cognitively oriented understanding of active learning can do so by familiarizing their students with such cognitive active learning strategies as activating prior knowledge, chunking, and practicing metacognitive awareness.

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active learning in large classes
Active learning

Quick In-Class Learning Activities to Build Student Engagement

The following are a few quick, easy, simple ways to engage students mentally, emotionally, or physically that do not require much planning and that you can do in almost any large class lecture. List them here and put this up in your office where you can see it to remind you to rotate these into your lectures.

  1. Think, pair, share (“Think about this, get with your neighbor, and share your thoughts…”)
  2. Concept expert (“One of you is responsible for reading [this], one for [that], and then get together and share/compare what you’ve learned”)
  3. Compare notes with your neighbor for clarity

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Students collaborating in class.
Teaching Strategies and Techniques

Understanding Student Resistance to Active Learning

Fear of student resistance prevents many college teachers from adopting active learning strategies. That’s unfortunate, because these strategies have been shown to significantly increase student learning, improve retention in academic programs, and provide especially strong benefits to traditionally underrepresented student groups. Addressing two key questions may reduce instructors’ fears and increase the adoption of active learning strategies:

  1. Are instructors’ fears of student resistance to active learning well-founded?
  2. Are there effective ways to minimize that resistance?

What is student resistance and is it widespread?
From a practical standpoint, student resistance can be defined as any observable student behavior that makes an instructor less likely to use an instructional strategy. Resistance-related behaviors include passively refusing to participate in an activity, actively complaining or disrupting groups during an activity, or giving low course evaluations to the instructors who use active learning. Some authors define resistance as an affective outcome, describing it in terms of student motivation or whether students like or value the activity. But while student attitudes drive their behaviors, it’s the behaviors that faculty see. It might therefore be more accurate to think of student attitudes as a mediator of resistant behavior.

How much do students actually resist active learning strategies in practice? As with most interesting questions, the answer begins with “It depends.” How much students resist active learning sometimes depends on the type of active learning used. Active learning is not a single technique but an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of instructional practices. Some of those practices, such as “minute papers,” in which the instructor asks students to take a minute and anonymously write down the most confusing point from that day’s lecture, aren’t likely to generate much student resistance. On the other hand, active learning approaches like problem-based learning that significantly increase expectations for student ownership of their learning generate more resistance (Woods, 1994).

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student discussion activity
Classroom Climate

Scenarios to Facilitate Discussion on Student Entitlement

The scenarios here can be used to explore the salient issues, starting with a deeper understanding of what entitlement involves. Most of the definitions are clear, but pretty generic. The conversation gets interesting when it focuses on what entitlement looks like when students have it or do it. The scenarios highlight some situations typically associated with entitlement. The discussion could start with student responses and actions that illustrate entitled attitudes and beliefs. But not every student request or objection is an entitled one. Sometimes students have legitimate concerns. Could that be the case in any of the scenarios outlined below?

Another rich discussion area involves whether certain faculty policies or practices promote student entitlement. Greenberger et. al. (2008) asks about the circumstances within higher education that foster it. The discussion could encompass higher education, generally, but the focus on faculty is important. Are we part of the problem? Are any of the policies and practices described or hinted at in the scenarios encouraging the sense of entitlement? Grading systems that rely on points? Policies that allow for absences? Giving partial credit?

The most needed discussion is the one that explores faculty responses to entitled attitudes and actions. Is the best approach to take the offensive—start the course by clarifying expectations? Outright discussions of entitlement—what it is and why it’s wrong?

The scenarios have been purposely written with a certain degree of ambiguity. Some responses to them will reflect entitled attitudes and beliefs, however, in some cases, the student may have a legitimate issue. Students could start by first discussing whether the scenario reveals entitlement or a legitimate concern. You might find there’s some disagreement among your students in terms of what is entitled behavior and what isn’t.

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